The '70s and '80s were full of iconic private eyes on television. We had Tom Selleck as Magnum P.I., Peter Falk as Columbo and James Garner as Jim Rockford. For six seasons (1974-'80), Garner was a fan favorite with audiences playing a P.I. But it was not the first time he had led his own TV series.
The Rockford Files followed Garner as a Los Angeles based investigator. He was fresh off of starring in the western series Maverick, which was also created by showrunner Roy Huggins. Huggins essentially took the beloved character of Bret Maverick and turned him into a leading man in a modern detective series. The end result? One of the most popular TV series of its time.
The first season starts with Rockford as an ex-con who had been falsely accused. He ended up serving time at California's San Quentin Prison. He operates his private detective services out of his mobile home in Malibu, mostly taking on tough cold cases and missing persons cases so he can operate without any trouble from local law enforcement. Noah Beery Jr. played his father, Joseph "Rocky" Rockford, a retired truck driver, and Joe Santos starred as Sergeant Dennis Becker of the Los Angeles Police Department. Stuart Margolin also plays Rockford's former cellmate from San Quentin, Angel Martin, a scheming con artist that always gets Rockford in trouble, but stays a loyal friend regardless. The drama series was action-packed, with Rockford doing some crazy car stunts in his Pontiac Firebird, which regularly got banged up during production.
Other noteworthy characters include Lance White (a different P.I. played by Selleck) and Elizabeth "Beth" Davenport (an attorney portrayed by Gretchen Corbett).
Here are some things you might not have known about Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell's beloved TV show, which is widely regarded as one of the best of all time.
1. A total of 122 answering machine messages were recorded across the series
Fans of the classic tv show know that each episode began with Rockford's answering machine. Across its six seasons, 122 messages were recorded. The funny thing was that most of the time they had nothing to do with the actual episode they were playing in. It was a fun way for viewers to tie in clues from previous episodes or get a deeper look into Rockford's depressing life. It started to get so hard for the writers (including future Sopranos creator David Chase) to come up with new ideas that they regularly invited suggestions from the crew.
2. The theme song was released as a single in 1975
Not only did the Mike Post and Pete Carpenter-composed theme song make it to the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement. For four decades it was also used as the field "walk out song" for the Tranmere Rovers, a British soccer team.
3. The show ended largely because Garner's doctors told him to take it easy
Playing a private investigator throughout the '70s really took its toll on Garner physically. After performing his own stunts for so many years, he endured back issues and knee injuries from car chases, fistfights and more. After his doctors told him to rest up, Garner opted not to continue with the television series due to the amount of pain he was in on a daily basis. NBC decided to just axe the series after that. (Its slew of notable guest stars made the show fairly expensive to produce.)
4. Garner received multiple award nominations for the role of Jim Rockford
Throughout the '70s, Garner, already an incredibly well-established actor in Hollywood, received 4 Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy Award for Best Actor.
5. There was a major disagreement between Garner and Universal Studios
Garner and Universal entered a legal battle throughout the '80s, while the studio was running the show in syndication. They finally agreed to come together to bring Rockford back on the air in a series of 8 TV movies from 1994 to 1999, which were all released on CBS instead of its original network, NBC. Multiple recurring actors from the original series came back to accompany the main leads, including Rita Moreno, who had previously won an Emmy for her portrayal of Rita Capkovic, the girl (and call girl) who was a police informant.
6. There was a spinoff series...kind of
Richie Brockelman, Private Eye wasn't an official spinoff of the show, but the character of Richie, played by Dennis Dugan, had appeared in the 1978 episode "The House on Willis Avenue." The episode was used to launch Richie's own show, which ran for only five episodes on NBC.
This story previously ran on Aug. 17, 2020.